the quiet dead

Nuevo Laredo, Mexico

 

In a City of Killings, Silence Is Golden

 

Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, is a battleground in a drug cartel turf war. But talking about the crimes can be deadly, especially for journalists.

 

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico--Here, it's better not to know.

 

Information can be poison in this border city. Hard-boiled police reporters would rather you didn't tell them the names of certain criminals. When there's a shootout downtown, even the most ambitious radio reporter will not necessarily rush to the scene.

 

So it went the day last month that four undercover federal police officers were ambushed and killed in thick lunch-hour traffic on the city's busiest street. The offices of several newspapers and radio stations were just blocks away -- but the news broke 700 miles to the south, on the Mexico City wire services.

 

"I don't mention groups, I don't mention names.... I don't want to know anything," said Leonardo Herrada Garcia, president of the Assn. of Journalists of Nuevo Laredo and a newspaper editor here. His paper will publish only the barest facts of the crime wave sweeping the city.

 

"It's not fear, it's being prudent," he explained. Three journalists have been killed here in the last year. "We're not going to try to be the hero of the movie."

 

The war between the so-called Gulf and Sinaloa drug cartels has been blamed by Mexican federal officials for more than 230 killings in the city in the last 16 months. The journalists who ordinarily would report on such violence have been silenced by cartel operatives who kidnap reporters and repeatedly phone in threats to newsrooms.

 

Violence and intimidation have created a culture of silence in this city of 500,000 people. Municipal officials rarely comment publicly on the killings. Law enforcement authorities seem powerless. And people here are hard-pressed to remember the last time anyone was arrested or prosecuted for such sensational crimes as the killing of more than a dozen police officers.

 

"When a crime is committed there should be an investigation, an accused, a punishment," says Carlos Galvan, the owner of two newspapers here. "As long as those things don't happen, speculation eats up [the reputation of] the victim."

 

Indeed, rumor and mythology are filling the information vacuum in Nuevo Laredo.

 

Ask why so many people have died here, and there's a good chance you'll be told that the dead have only themselves to blame. The vox populi has it that no "good" or "innocent" person is ever killed in Nuevo Laredo.

 

"They must have been involved in something," a taxi driver said just a block from the site where the four police officers were killed.

 

The refrain is reminiscent of dictatorships in other Latin American nations, such as Argentina, where for years people were taken away by soldiers and police officers and "disappeared" without explanation.

 

Told that the dead were police officers, the taxi driver responded, "The police are all corrupt."

 

Another popular saying here draws on the Mexican myth that killers are fated to forever drag around the remains of their victims: "Only the person who carries the sack of bones knows why they were killed," people say.

 

Newspaper and radio reporters here say they would like to tell the full story of the killings. The names of certain drug kingpins circulate among journalists and in other border towns, but have never been printed. Facts might help dispel the myths, they say, as well as the aura of omnipotence that surrounds the cartels. But facts can get reporters killed.

 

"Some fortunate people who have not been touched directly by the violence can give themselves the luxury of thinking that honest people are not affected," said one journalist who, like many other people interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of not being named. "That's not true."

 

The cartels are a shadowy but ubiquitous presence. Longtime residents fear their wealth, their armaments and their apparent infiltration of institutions, such as the police force.

 

"Here, everyone knows who is a narco and who works for them," said one Nuevo Laredo resident, a university student.

 

"The important thing is not to get mixed up with them and keep a normal life. I even know some narco juniors," the student said, using a term for the young assassins from well-off families recruited to the cartels. "They're very obvious. They show up with the armored pick-up trucks, with guards and all that."

 

More than 60 people have been killed in the city this year.

 

The pictures of the dead run in the local newspapers alongside screaming headlines such as "A Rain of Bullets!" Some papers routinely run stark pictures of open-eyed corpses torn up by high-caliber bullets. But rarely will a local newspaper, or a local official, explain why a person was killed or who the killer might be.

 

Are all the dead drug dealers, or connected with them, as many say?

 

When a police officer is killed, is it in retaliation for a police raid, or because the officer was mixed up with criminals?

 

When a journalist is killed or attacked, is it because he or she "offended the sensibilities" (a common Nuevo Laredo euphemism) of one of the drug bands by revealing something about its operations? Or was it because the journalist was working for a cartel and was killed by its rival?

 

Last year, Tamaulipas Gov. Eugenio Hernandez Flores told residents: "The people of Tamaulipas who behave themselves have nothing to fear" because those being victimized in the wave of violence "are in some way involved with organized crime."

 

Even people who were close to the victims wonder whether they can ever know why their friends and relatives were killed.

 

A Nuevo Laredo resident who described himself as a childhood friend of Alejandro Dominguez, a police chief assassinated last year, wonders out loud what his friend might have done to get himself killed.

 

"You have to go to the root of things. Why did it happen?" says the man, a Nuevo Laredo entrepreneur who asked not to be named. "What did he have in his past? What was his way of living before?"

 

Dominguez had worked in the attorney general's office.

 

"He was in law enforcement," the friend said. "And when you're in that job, whether you like it or not, you have to get involved with bad people."

 

The assassination of Dominguez shook Nuevo Laredo and garnered international headlines. He had been head of the Nuevo Laredo police force for just a few hours when he was gunned down.

 

"It hits you hard. You know that person, you are with that person, you listen to his dreams and aspirations," the friend said. Still, like many residents here, he was concerned that the killing had been blown out of proportion. He seemed to be angry with his old friend for getting assassinated in such a scandalous way.

 

"If he hadn't been killed in an hour, it wouldn't have had such an impact on Nuevo Laredo," he said.

 

Key facts about the drug war are unknown to the general public. For example, it's never been reported here that criminal gangs have threatened local radio stations and newspaper reporters to keep them from reporting on shootings.

 

Nor has it been reported locally that the narcos have kidnapped journalists. And one Nuevo Laredo reporter told the Mexico City magazine Proceso in February that none who have been kidnapped -- and sometimes tortured -- by the drug bands will file an official complaint.

 

"Because if there's anyone here who knows that the federal, the state and especially the municipal authorities cannot be trusted, it's precisely us," the journalist said.

 

The mayor of Nuevo Laredo rejected requests for an interview for this article, as did police officials.

 

To escape the pervasive sense of danger, many residents, including some journalists, seek out facts that suggest that violence is something that happens to others.

 

At radio station 95.7 FM, news director Marco Antonio Espinoza disagrees with those who say his colleague Ramiro Tellez was killed because he was a journalist.

 

"The problem did not occur because of journalism," Espinoza said. Tellez really wasn't a journalist, Espinoza said. "He'd come in here in the morning and do the weather report. Then he would leave."

 

Tellez, who was killed March 10, worked as director of the city's emergency and police communications system. Sources speculated that Tellez may have been killed because the city had recently installed a communications system that made it difficult for criminals to monitor police radio transmissions.

 

"We stay away from police stories," Espinoza said. "It was the other job that caused his problem."

 

The newspaper El Manana decided to "self-censor" its coverage after editor Roberto Mora Garcia was slain outside his home in 2004. Nevertheless, on Feb. 6, the newspaper's offices were attacked and a reporter seriously wounded by men wielding assault rifles and hand grenades.

 

Sources in Nuevo Laredo's journalism community offered several theories about the reason. Maybe it was because of the Proceso article that had come out a day earlier. Maybe it was because El Manana had recently participated in a journalism symposium with out-of-towners. Or maybe it was because of a certain story that mentioned the sighting of a cartel hit man.

 

"Who was responsible?" El Manana asked in an editorial after the February attack. "We don't know. It could have been anybody. They are ghosts.

 

"Many times we in the media are attacked in order to blame a rival group, so that a crackdown by the authorities on that rival group will follow.

 

"It's the new method of doing terrorism."